Environmental turmoil in Wisconsin

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." — Upton Sinclair

A Florida-based company called Gogebic Taconite (GTAC) wants to dig the world’s biggest open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s governor and the Republican majority in the Wisconsin legislature want the mine to be dug. Environmentalists, and the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe, do not.

To fast-track the digging the state legislature produced a bill, crafted with input from GTAC, that cut the required time to grant a permit and relaxed environmental protections. The bill was hotly contested, but in a show of popular support Americans for Prosperity — an “astroturf” organization funded by billionaire businessman and political activist David Koch — bused 30 or so supporters of the bill from southeast Wisconsin to the capital grounds in Madison to stage a rally. Participants received orange hats saying “Vote Yes for Mining,” plus a free lunch.

In March 2013, Gov. Scott Walker signed a mining reform bill into law.

Among other things, the new law “streamlines” the approval process for the mine so that the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will not have time to do a proper study of the mine’s potential impact on the region’s wetlands and rivers, many of which flow into Lake Superior.

And then there’s asbestos. At least three geologists have confirmed that a type of asbestos called grunerite is present at the site of the proposed mine, in large quantities. GTAC simply says that’s not true.

GTAC’s critics accuse the company of playing games with sampling. GTAC is declining to sample areas known to have grunerite, they say. The company is alleged to be sampling in areas where the rocks have been exposed to the elements for a long time. And the company is denying that what geologists say is grunerite is actually grunerite. More tests are always required to confirm the geologists’ findings.

Grunerite, also called amosite or “brown asbestos,” is one of the six types of asbestos. It is not asbestos-related or asbestos-resembling or any other qualifier that has shown up in news stories; it is asbestos. And there is no question that exposure to it causes mesothelioma and other deadly asbestos-related diseases.

The mining operation could scatter asbestos widely over the area, endangering the lives of whoever lives there. This is similar to what happened in Libby, Montana, which was once the site of an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine. Now many of Libby’s residents are dead or dying, and the U.S. taxpayer is on the hook for the cleanup and medical care.

Proponents of the law say that the iron mine will create jobs. And it might, but why the rush? The hurry-up may have something to do with Wisconsin’s anemic job growth rate, which lags behind those of the nation and neighboring states. Gov. Walker, who is considered a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, sold himself to the voters as a pro-business fiscal conservative who would create jobs. If he doesn’t start creating some, he may be out of a job himself.

Opponents of the bill say it will kill jobs that already exist. For example, the Bad River Chippewa band, downstream from the site, markets wild rice grown in the still-clear river. By law the band has a say in any enterprise that might affect its land, but it appears the Wisconsin state legislature did not ask for the band’s input on the “reform” law. The Chippewa community expresses its concerns in this YouTube video.

Further, many long-established local businesses cater to tourists and sell supplies for hunting and sports fishing. Millions of tons of waste rock will likely put an end to those enterprises.

Yes, millions of tons, easily. GTAC plans a 4 ½-mile long open pit iron ore mine. But this would be only the first phase of an eventual 22-mile strip of open-pit mining in what is now many acres of forest and streams. What GTAC wants to mine is taconite, an iron-bearing sedimentary rock. The iron that taconite contains is of low quality, and extracting the usable iron from the rock is a big, messy process that leaves a lot of waste. Still, there is enough demand for the iron pellets yielded from taconite that a profit can be made.

Note that taconite has been mined in Minnesota for many years. As of 2005, the mesothelioma rate in the taconite mining areas was more than 125 percent higher than the rest of the state.

However, most environmentalists and the Bad River Chippewa are primarily concerned about what the mine could do to the wetlands and waters. The Nature Conservancy has said that the new law exacerbates risks to the environment —

“…by allowing alterations of lake beds, streams and rivers, as well as the outright destruction of any wetland. It allows waste piles to be steeper, located in or adjacent to hydric soils. It removes shore land zoning requirements and protections for wetlands. When taken in totality, these changes pose a heightened risk to surrounding waters and eliminate nature’s ability to mitigate those damages.”

It appears, though, that just before Christmas the Army Corps of Engineers put an end to this fast-tracking of a potential environmental disaster. The Army Corps, which must also approve the project, informed GTAC that it will not be issuing a joint environmental impact statement with the state of Wisconsin, as the company had hoped. The Army Corps will do its own environmental impact evaluation, thank you, and it will take its sweet time doing it.

Because the permitting process is now split between state and federal agencies, it will likely take longer — as much as five years — before the mining company can get its permit. Assuming, of course, that it gets a permit.